Researching my new book Dictators' Homes last year, I progressed from decoration mistakes to economics. How did all those dictators put together the hundreds of millions - often billions - displayed in their collections of huge and horrible palaces? How did they extract that kind of money from dirt-poor economies, places were people lived on a dollar a day and less?
A pretty constant pattern emerged. There were three revenue streams. The first came simply from putting your hand in the national till. In countries where transactions were poorly documented and civil servants eminently biddable (often they'd be from your gang/your tribe/your village) you could divert astonishing slices of the core national tax funds into your own bank accounts in Switzerland, from where they'd emerge as, say, a pink villa at Cap Ferrat (Mobutu), or an apartment block in New York (Marcos).
Then there was the Monopoly money you could extract - for granting monopolies. If your dirt-poor country had valuable dirt-gold or diamonds or, above all, oil - you got western extractors to bid for the rights. If your country placed an order for high-tech equipment for its low-tech army then a hefty percentage of the order value went to the presidential palace. Those western companies, run by reasonable-seeming haut suburbanites, accepted that that was the price of doing business.
But the worst, most painful revenue stream came from aid. Meta-Aid of the "just give us the money and we'll get on with the job" variety was once doled out by the west to what used to be called the Third World in staggering sums for very mixed motives. Aid was a way of keeping strategically-useful countries on side (a "bulwark against Communism"). It was a way of shoring up countries which looked set to fall apart. And mixed in somewhere there, sometimes a lick of a humanitarian motive.
Whatever the aid was intended for - guns or butter, ploughshares of antibiotics - another big slice came right off the top for the Father of His People. It's impossible to believe that western PMs and presidents on state visits didn't know their own governments had paid for the pink Champagne (Bokassa's favourite) and the marble everywhere.
Aid is a touchy subject: it flushes out every kind of political, social and racial prejudice. It's now much more scrutinised and select committee-ised, and there's a whole profession and language of aid. And a mass of new ways to stop it just feathering nests. But it often still runs down the wrong pipe and gives people who were against giving in the first place that argument that always starts, "It never gets to the people it's meant for...".
Market research on giving to the developing world at the more modest individual level - money in the collecting tin or the envelope - shows, year after year, how people who don't want to give a penny anyway squirrel up tabloid stories that let them off the hook: corruption/incompetence/these-people-can't-handle-money stories. Knowing this, Christian Aid is constantly trying to communicate its Christian Aid Week appeals with simple metaphors that outflank the usual arguments (including the saloon bar bore one that says bureaucratic charities spend all the money on administration). This year it's come up with a classic bit of cut-through, a marvellously simple memorable commercial that's also riskily, rather funny. It's a Heath Robinson/Emett sort of machine which you use in an African village to multiply useful things. Like chickens, or pigs or food crops. Stick a chicken in a bucket on one side and five clones flap out of the other.
You're helping villagers create the resources for self-sufficiency, giving them something useful at the micro-level - not big money at the macro - and it works. (You have to have something about "teaching self- sufficiency".) "You add, we multiply" is Christian Aid's line. It's one of the best charity ads I've seen in ages. More than that, it'll probably make the shortlist for the big board when Adland starts handing out awards.